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Mountain Magic in Central Vermont

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Photo: David Nicolas

Not ten minutes into Vermont, after crossing over Lake Champlain from New York, my SUV skids into a deep ditch filled with snow. I make it worse by gunning it in reverse, with the tires kicking up gravel and the cab tilting at a dangerous angle. Dusk advances early in winter this far north, and I am still on the wrong side of the Green Mountains, with a winding drive on steep roads ahead. Just then, a battered truck swoops up behind me, and a wiry man in overalls jumps out and tosses a chain in my direction. After we attach the tow hook, he reverses and quickly hauls my sorry chassis out of the snowdrift. Before I can thank him properly, my rescuer is on his way and I am left staring at the glow of his taillights. Vermonters are like that. Not ones for words.

Bette Davis, playing a tart-mouthed New York socialite in the 1939 film Dark Victory, referred to Vermont as "that narrow, pinched-up state on the wrong side of Boston." (Kinder eyes might liken its shape to, say, a leg of lamb.) Geographically, Vermont has a mountain range running right up its middle to the border it shares with Quebec's Eastern Townships, with narrow but fertile valleys on either side. The reason for its "pinched-up" appearance is in part due to the squeeze applied during an early land grab by the adjoining colonies of New York and New Hampshire, which squabbled over this mountainous grant until—and this was prototypical—Vermont settlers determined to go their own stubborn way, especially against the "Yorkers," who had levied burdensome taxes, by declaring an independent republic in 1777. These rabble-rousers included a backwoods farmer named Ethan Allen, leader of a civilian militia known as the Green Mountain Boys, which also played a significant role in the war with a common enemy of all Yankees, regardless of their location vis-à-vis Boston.

Despite my dubious status as a native "Yorker," I've been crossing the Vermont state line since the early 1970's, when family friends bought an inn with a bunny slope in the backyard. That's where I first learned how to snowplow, with bamboo poles and wooden skis strapped to my rubber galoshes. It's also where my downhill career was nearly cut short when the rope tow practically yanked my arms out of their sockets. Since then, I am grateful to say, ski equipment has advanced, both for transporting flatlanders, as native Vermonters call everyone else, to the top of their mountains, as well as for propelling us back down, preferably with some semblance of grace and as few face-plants as possible. Ironically, despite efforts in recent decades to make it more accessible (two four-lane highways, the expansion of the Burlington International Airport), Vermont steadfastly remains caught in a uniquely providential time warp. Imagine a boho Shangri-la populated by graying hippie poets, pastoral activists, and youthful disciples of snowboarding pioneer Jake Burton Carpenter, of Stowe. Especially in winter, when snow blankets the state, everyone seems resolved to a slower pace in the Green Mountains. So it is during this somnolent season, when ice goblins rime granite ridges and only state license plates remain evergreen, that I am regularly drawn back to the woods of Vermont.

Specifically, I go to the woods of central Vermont, including a tract of Green Mountain National Forest where inky streams lie crusted with ice, silent glades are marked by wild-turkey tracks, historic towns have white-steepled churches, and ski resorts have resisted the temptations of overdevelopment. My two favorites, Sugarbush and Stowe, have both received major upgrades recently. Former Merrill Lynch International chairman Win Smith heads up a posse of investors committed to maintaining the crunchy zeitgeist at Sugarbush. A new post-and-beam base lodge, restaurant, and slopeside condominiums disguised as a supersize barn complex have opened in the past year. (Smith soothed agitated environmentalists with a construction stunt any Luddite would love: employing a team of horses, rather than bulldozers, to clear timber for the original site.) Not to be outdone, Stowe has added a gondola that connects its two mountains; by spring, the 139-room Stowe Mountain Lodge at Spruce Peak will complete its new alpine village. More than 2,000 acres surrounding the site have been put into a permanent conservation easement. And that's actually not all that extraordinary. In 1970, the Vermont legislature passed the Land Use and Development Law, which continues to restrict just about everything vulgar and unsightly man can impose—billboards, subdivisions, congested highways, wind turbines, cell towers, neon lights—on a natural or historic landscape. Considered to be a legislative backlash to an encroaching highway system that was funneling second-home builders "from away," namely New York and Boston, into the state's southernmost communities and resorts, like Stratton and Killington, the bill was a revolutionary attempt to exert control over rampant development. Not all Vermonters are thrilled with the restrictive covenants that have kept their state remarkably free of visual clutter, but I can't help being jealous while heading north to the Mad River Valley on roads lacking all evidence of single-wide trailers, big-box retail, and strip malls. Of course, this may also be explained by Vermont's total population: 623,908 (given the state's area, that works out to an average of almost 10 acres per person).

When I finally stop for my first night at Twin Farms, in Barnard, and check in to an idealized log cabin (crackling fires and a downy comforter on the hickory-twig bed; hot chocolate and handmade marshmallows), it's far too dark to see the backwoods. The next morning, however, a dusting of fresh snow makes me eager to haul my snowshoes out of the trunk andawait tracker John Barnes inside the Barnard General Store, just one mile down the road. From the soda fountain at the rear, I can look across to Silver Lake, frozen solid and strewn with ice-fishing shacks. About 20 yards out from the shoreline, a chubby effigy stuffed with straw named George is wearing a blue flannel plaid shirt and clutches an American flag. Every year for the past 30, he has sat on the ice from the time the lake freezes over until mud season. As customers stock up on sausage and flax crackers, they place a two-dollar bet against the time and date he will sink during the spring melt. Last year, it was after midnight on April 23. George's slushy demise has a gallows-humor tenor that appeals to those all-too accustomed to the vagaries of winter. The weather-wise recipient of the 50/50 pot usually walks away with a few hundered dollars. The other half is donated to local charities.

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